By Elizabeth Arrott
U.S. President Barack Obama has made outreach to the Muslim world a signature of his presidency. He tries again with a speech Thursday, but recent events may have made his audience less receptive.
President Obama’s address comes as the most successful of the “Arab Spring” uprisings — in Tunisia and Egypt – are overshadowed by more violent conflicts, in Libya, Syria and beyond.
Surveys indicate that the upheaval has lowered opinions in the Arab and Muslim world of the U.S., in particular Obama. The U.S. leader was criticized for seeming at first one step behind the popular movements, despite their embodying the democratic values America espouses.
By early February, Obama seemed to catch up with the trend, at least as it played out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve, in Egypt, and around the world,” said the president.
But many in the Middle East and North Africa saw America’s support of the protest movements across the region as uneven.
Toward Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Yemen, a partner in counter-terrorism, U.S. criticism was more muted. In contrast, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, a long-time provocateur, felt the West’s military might.
And U.S. military action did not stop there, as President Obama dramatically revealed. “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” he said.
There is little affection for the al-Qaida leader among the majority in the region, but the unilateral raid in Pakistan brought to mind previous U.S. missions in Muslim lands.
Those past images were something the president has sought to erase.
Obama came to Cairo early in his term, with a message of reconciliation that many felt was much needed after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But within months, critics argued that Obama’s promises of better relations were not matched by deeds. They wonder if this speech will be any different.
Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo believes Obama could go far to improve relations with two key steps. “Number one is aid, you know, not only financial aid, but also institution building, restructuring, technical assistance, education scholarships. You need to change the area to be ready for democracy and assist the transition to democracy,” said Sadek.
The other, he says, is if Obama takes a new approach to finally solve problems between Israelis and Palestinians. He feels they would benefit both those parties and people in the region’s autocratic leaders.
“Those people were trading on the Palestinian question like many Arab regimes and so it is very important that we stop them from having this excuse so they can face their own people,” said Sadek.
Obama’s words may have disappointed in the past, but if this speech offers concrete actions, the president may find a warmer audience.